Connacht rugby is blossoming but real beauty lies in their spirit of separateness

Buses that crowd the Sportsground are testament to the province’s hard work

For Connacht devotees, these must be strange times. Somewhere Monty Hall's old gem – "I became an overnight success after 20 years" – must be rattling around the minds of those who used to turn up at the Sportsground on rugby afternoons when the crowd was so sparse that you couldn't lose your kid even if you tried.

In Galway you drive down the N17 towards the city knowing that the road serves as a kind of Berlin Wall between the football parishes on one side and the hurling reservations of east Galway on the other. The city holds no distinct divisions or antipathies: you can find any sport but none has particularly dominated, mainly because there is too much other stuff going on and because nothing is taken as seriously in Galway as having a good time.

Soccer has its traditions and its glorious chapters and the fringe sports like basketball and rowing and boxing thrive periodically and even if nobody is convinced of the merits of hurling by the Atlantic ocean, Pearse stadium has become the home of Galway GAA. The Galway Races is about sport in the same way as it is about fashion: it’s a show. So you can find any kind of sport in Galway city or live in the place all your life while remaining perfectly oblivious to its existence.

But in the past few months, Connacht rugby has begun to soar. The ratio of Connacht jerseys to beatnik apparel has definitely evened out on the perpetually teeming thoroughfares around Cross Street. The province has begun to roar.


When Alan Mulholland took over the Galway senior football team a few years ago, he made an interesting point about Connacht rugby, praising the work the club had done in promoting itself and suggesting that the GAA should do the same thing. This was not long after Connacht had come up with the brilliantly simple idea of fitting flags to the streetlights along the Salthill promenade.

Mulholland had watched as a GAA kid from his era, Eric Elwood, made the transition to rugby and become a city and provincial cult figure in the decades afterwards. Elwood's formative rugby years belonged to that absurd, irrevocable period when the game wasn't fully serious but still sufficiently good enough to bring the All Blacks west for a challenge.

Elwood – recently brought back to the provincial set-up as domestic rugby manager – was 19 when he played against New Zealand and bought new boots with fancy clip-on studs for the occasion. And he was damned if he knew how to fit them, sitting fiddling in the dressing room minutes before kick-off as George Hook, then Connacht coach, bellowed at him: “Biggest game of your effing life, Elwood, and you can’t get your boots right.”

When Elwood retired as a player, he served first as assistant coach to Michael Bradley and then as his successor. Both men proved tireless in their pursuit of the idea of Connacht as a legitimate force and presence in Irish rugby as opposed to the cliched last outpost: grim stadium but what a place to go on the lash.

Everyone talking

They worked hard and it was fitting that they were pictured together in the stands when Pat Lam’s team achieved its famous, cataclysmic win against Munster on new year’s night. Connacht have had huge results under Bradley and Elwood but that Munster win has got everyone talking. Joe Canning, easily Galway’s best known sportsperson of recent years, spoke this week of how the hurling team will draw off what Connacht has achieved.

The buses that pull in outside the Sportsground on match nights and the youngsters from from all five counties who play at half time are the reward for the province’s hard work . There is a real sense that Connacht rugby is not just a feature of Galway city but that it belongs to the other counties too.

The arrival of Pat Lam, with his clear view of how he wanted Connacht to play and his instinctive understanding of what the club means in the locality, has coincided with the IRFU decision to back the province with funding that is already making the difference. Talk of a new stadium with 20,000 seats and of making Galway an integral part of Ireland’s rugby World Cup bid is ambitious. Maybe it would be better to secure and enhance the Sportsground into a compact hothouse of, say, 14,000. Why build a stadium that may well prove hard to fill? Why abandon a ground that is 10 minutes walk from Eyre Square? Why leave a ground that you have worked ferociously to make your own?

Where Connacht ends up is a matter for another day. But there is a real sense this season that as a club and entity, Connacht are going somewhere. The critical thing is that even as it fights for parity of esteem with the other three provinces, Connacht manages to hold on to that sense of being outside the Pale: of being something distinct and different.

Impoverished days

Even in its impoverished days Connacht has always added the splash of tabasco to Irish rugby. Somewhere swirling around in the maelstrom of the current excitement is the influence and memory of Ciaran Fitzgerald’s oath-ridden exhortations on pride as Irish captain, of Warren Gatland’s antic 13-man line out, of Noel Mannion’s slow gallop to glory in the Cardiff Arms Park and, most thrillingly, of the first blooming of Simon Geoghegan — an emigrant’s son playing for the emigrants’ province. It was from Galway that Geoghegan arrived in Dublin for his very first Irish under-20 international training session. He had been visiting his grandfather’s farm in the county and his father drove him to the appointed training session in a van which happened to be laden with straw.

“I think we were going back to England after training but I can’t remember what the straw was for,” Geoghegan recalled in 2001. When you search for any Irish rugby player to compare to the pure adrenalin rush and speed and aggression and flair for the unexpected which Brian O’Driscoll embodied, then you find Geoghegan. And it always seemed appropriate, given how fiercely he bucked against the limitations of Irish rugby, that Geoghegan was of Connacht. “So I got out at Lansdowne,” Geoghegan recalled of his official introduction to Irish rugby.

“Some of the lads where there and when I opened the side door of the van, all this straw fell out. Everyone was staring. Then I just started speaking in this English accent and everyone just looked at me as if to say: “who the f**k is this f**king weirdo?” I just arrived from nowhere, grabbed my boots and said: ‘how about a game?’ And I left the same way.”

So much of the spirit of Connacht is contained within that story. If Connacht rugby can keep some of that sense of separateness and identity while moving closer to the mainstream, then it has a chance of becoming something unique within the modern game.